What has become of William Morris the socialist, the author of one of the finest works of utopian political fiction, and the founder of the Socialist League? How can we wrest him away from the image of him as the "intellectually disorganised artist beloved by the heritage industry"? In this essay on Kristin Ross's Communal Luxury, Matthew Beaumont analyses Ross's attempt to rescue Morris for the present, and for the task of liberation.
This article first appeared in The Journal of William Morris Studies, 21.4 (2016), where it formed part of a symposium-in-print on Kristin Ross's Communal Luxury. Back issues can be purchased here. A chronological index of the Journal is available online.
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Extract from Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London by Matthew Beaumont
In the dead of night, in spite of the electric lights and the remnants of nightlife, London is an alien city, especially if you are strolling through its lanes and thoroughfares alone.
In the more sequestered streets, once the pubs are closed, and at a distance from the twenty-four-hour convenience stores, the sodium gleam of the street lamps, or the flickering strip-light from a soporific minicab stand, offers little consolation. There are alleys and street corners and shop entrances where the darkness appears to collect in a solid, faintly palpitating mass. There are secluded squares where, to appropriate a haunting line from a poem by Shelley, night makes ‘a weird sound of its own stillness’. There are buildings, monuments and statues that, at a distance, and in the absence of people, pulsate mysteriously in the sepulchral light. There are foxes that slope and trot across the road, in a single motion, as you interrupt their half-shameful, half-defiant attempts to pillage scraps from upended bins. And, from time to time, there are the faintly sinister silhouettes of other solitary, perhaps homeless, individuals – as threatened by your presence, no doubt, as you are by theirs. ‘However efficiently artificial light annihilates the difference between night and day’, Al Alvarez has commented, ‘it never wholly eliminates the primitive suspicion that night people are up to no good.’